Ariel Rubinstein is a famous game theorist who has been arguing for a while that game theory is not useful. Most recently he published an op-ed in the Israeli Ha’aretz newspaper, mischievously entitled “How game theory will solve the Euro zone problems and stop the Iranian nukes?” (answer: it won’t). The op-ed rehashes his well-known views, but there was one paragraph that I particularly liked. (I’m translating from Hebrew because the English version of the op-ed, which appeared a few days ago under a slightly different title, is behind an insurmountable paywall.)
Some of the claimed applications of game theory are nothing but labels for real-life situations. For example, it has been claimed that the Euro zone crisis is like the games known as the prisoner’s dilemma, chicken, and the diner’s dilemma. The crisis bears a resemblance to all of these situations. But such statements are as hollow as saying that the Euro zone crisis is like a Greek tragedy. While the comparison to a Greek tragedy is perceived as an emotional statement by ivory tower intellectuals, giving a label from the game theory lexicon is for some reason perceived as a scientific truth.
A few days later the New York Times published an article that seems to have been deliberately designed to piss Rubinstein off. Michael Chwe, a UCLA political science professor, has just published a book called “Jane Austen, Game Theorist”. I haven’t read the book itself, but what I can say is that the NYT story makes a weak case for why Jane Austen “isn’t merely fodder for game-theoretical analysis, but an unacknowledged founder of the discipline itself”. For example:
Take the scene in “Pride and Prejudice” where Lady Catherine de Bourgh demands that Elizabeth Bennet promise not to marry Mr. Darcy. Elizabeth refuses to promise, and Lady Catherine repeats this to Mr. Darcy as an example of her insolence — not realizing that she is helping Elizabeth indirectly signal to Mr. Darcy that she is still interested. It’s a classic case of cluelessness, which is distinct from garden-variety stupidity, Mr. Chwe argues. “Lady Catherine doesn’t even think that Elizabeth” — her social inferior — “could be manipulating her,” he said.
But if, as Rubinstein “suggests”, Greek tragedies capture strategic interactions, and if we’re anyway revising our view of who founded game theory, shouldn’t the honor go to Sophocles?